Since March 25, India has been adopted a lockdown strategy in its ‘war’ on COVID-19 and continues to put its faith in it. This fact was confirmed on April 14, when the prime minister in his third address to the nation announced the decision to extend the national lockdown till May 3.
The decision, he claimed, was based on the advice of several chief ministers and public health experts. There is no doubt that the decision was an extremely difficult one especially since it meant the prolongation of economic inactivity that is bound to have severe consequences for all, especially for the unorganised sector which constitutes the bulk of India’s poor.
One can only hope that by the end of this cycle of lockdown, economic activities can be restored and the gains in lives saved from COVID-19 will justify the impact on India’s economy in terms of job losses, unemployment, poverty, interruptions in education and causing health issues besides entailing the loss of lives.
Strategy is the bridge that connects the means with the ends (goals). The metaphor of ‘war’ is being universally used to describe the situation which is in essence a pandemic that involves a virus. The course that a war takes is determined largely by the strategy adopted by opposing sides and is essentially aimed to at least affect if not impose one’s will on the other.
In this case the adversary, COVID-19 apparently has a free will, is invisible to the human eye; though it can affect many, it is lethal to only a limited degree and probably has a lower fatality potential than earlier epidemics like H1N1, SARS, Swine Flu and Ebola. Importantly, the modality of spread is known and therefore the predilection for measures to halt the spreading through inter alia lockdowns, social distancing, protective equipment and washing of hands.
Clearly the political objective must be to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on national development. This demands the balancing of economic activity with public health. Lockdown weighs wholly on the side of public health while debilitating economic activity.
It is uncertain if COVID-19 can be controlled through prolonged lockdowns, even of 40 days, as at the end of the first 21 days there had been no flattening of the infection and mortality curves. The potential ability of the virus to make continuous comebacks is very much within the realm of possibility. On the positive side, the time has been utilised to increase the availability of hospital beds as one of the major apprehensions was that healthcare facilities would be overwhelmed unless a national level lockdown was imposed.
There is definitely a case for selectively loosening the lockdown in terms of economic activity. There are enormous economic costs of the lockdown and though estimations would vary, it is certain that there is going to be a significant reduction in India’s GDP growth.
The consequences of the economic downturn will impact the poor of India, the most. The question is whether the government has the means to mitigate the impact through the governance architecture both at the central and the state level. Though some measures have been announced, at least starvation deaths should hopefully be prevented and there is a strong case for the government utilising its reserves of food stock – a measure that has unfortunately not been undertaken as yet.
But the psychological and physical impact of being cooped up in confined spaces for the vast majority of people while staring at an uncertain future in the midst of an Indian summer can only lead to desperation that makes life seem intolerable. The lathi-charge on several thousand migrant labourers who protested demanding transportation to return to their native places at the Bandra railway station on April 14 is indicative of the trouble ahead.
What then could be a better strategy to achieve the political objective of protecting India’s development? In the absence of effective drugs and vaccine, developing herd immunity as suggested by some experts provides an albeit imperfect strategy. But its viability has at least marginally improved now that the government has supplemented its public health infrastructure. Since the mortality for higher age groups is the greatest danger, the silver lining in this strategy is India’s demographic profile which has only 7% of the population (approximately) who are above 60 years.
The absolute numbers are still large. But the young are relatively safer from COVID-19 and can develop the base for herd immunity which will provide the primary line of defence against the virus. Unlike the strategy of lockdown, in this case only the old have to be locked down and protected. Additionally, government efforts to segregate the old need to be directed at those segments of society which cannot afford to segregate due to constraints of living space.
The implementation of the above strategy will require the reversal of the narrative that keeping indoors will keep infection away. The new narrative will have to be that infection by COVID-19 is to be perceived as a flu plus in its impact except for the old. This narrative is certainly challenging to sell especially to the Indian middle class which may naturally opt to play safe. Though an initial spurt in infections can be expected, over a few weeks the numbers immunised by antibodies may contain the virus in the shortest possible timeframe. On the other hand, if a lockdown persists, we may remain trapped in a perennial cycle of lockdowns and relaxations. A prolonged outbreak coupled with an economic freeze is precisely what should be avoided.
The success of India’s fight against COVID-19 will, in all probability, determine India’s standing in the evolving new world order. Minimising the economic impact is therefore of strategic importance that will have long term consequences for India’s development. There is enormous uncertainty about the nature of this pandemic accompanied by weaknesses in the collection of data that reflects reality. What is certain is that the lockdown approach was useful but it cannot be relied upon to control a virus that has brought fear into the heart of every Indian.
The switch now required of the political leadership is persuading that segment of the populace to partake in economic activities while taking all precautions and informing them that even if infected, it is not the end of the world. However, if lockdown continues, it could well be the end of the world for India’s aspiration to be a leading power.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru and former Military Adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat.